An Ontario Catholic school is under fire for a Grade 8 assignment that requires students to make anti-abortion posters for marks and the chance to win a cash prize.
The assignment at St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School in Woodstock involves students creating a poster that includes the words "Unborn Babies Matter," along with a picture or pictures that incorporate the theme. The in-class assignment is being graded and entered in a contest run by a local anti-abortion group.
"The parents weren't told about it, and they're not allowing the kids to learn about the opposite side of this issue," said Rachelle Lynn Dixon, whose daughter Kaydence, 13, alerted her mom to the assignment. "It's a Catholic school, but it's also funded by the public. It's an elementary school that is asking kids to Google images about abortion.
"I want her [Kaydence] to form her own opinion," added her mom. "I understand it's a Catholic school and it teaches Catholic beliefs, but we're living in a day and age where women's rights matter. With everything going on in the world, I don't think these kids need to have this added on top of it."
Dixon spoke Thursday morning to the school, and said she plans to pull her two children from the Catholic system at the end of this school year.
She said it's problematic that the contest is being run by an outside group not affiliated with the church and that marks are being awarded alongside possible prize money is problematic.
"It's not the teacher, it's not the school. It's not even the church. It's a competition through an outside group. If anything, this should have been a handout so if the kids want to participate, they can talk to their parents and do it on their own time," Dixon said.
'Sanctity of life' teachings
Students in the class are learning the Catholic Church's view on the "sanctity of life" as part of the Grade 8 religion curriculum, and are given a poster assignment to complete on the topic, said Mark Adkinson, a spokesperson for the London District Catholic School Board.
"Students may choose to create a poster that would fit the criteria for both the assignment and the optional third-party contest," he told CBC News in an email.
Kaydence plans to talk to her teacher and class about why she finds the assignment and contest troubling.
"I think it is OK to talk about abortion with kids, but what's not OK is only teaching them about pro-life. I think instead of our current project, we should be allowed to make pro-choice posters and we should have a debate about the subject, as all opinions matter and everyone has the right to be heard," the teen wrote in a speech.
An anti-abortion contest has been part of the Oxford County Right to Life group's offerings for the past 20 years, but this is the first time a teacher has used it as an assignment, said Mary VanVeen, who runs the group and said it is not affiliated with the Catholic Church.
"Right now, we have a cancel culture where people want to get rid of the people who have values. We hope students in Grade 7 and 8 think about human life, and express themselves in art, and have a discussion about it at home and school," VanVeen said.
VanVeen's contest offers a $50 prize. The assignment on the blackboard offered a $150 prize, which a board spokesperson said was a typo.
"Parents weren't told about this assignment. It says it can only be done in class. That is outrageous. I want my daughter and son to always come talk to me about anything they're disturbed about, not to be told not to do that by their teacher," Dixon said.
Tying the assignment to a contest gives students little choice, she said.
"One of Kaydence's friends tried to speak up about it in class, but her grades really matter to her. She's on the honour roll, graduating this year, so she ended up doing the project anyway, even though it made her uncomfortable."
Dixon said she's proud of her daughter, who told her about the assignment and will speak to her teacher about her objections.
Ontario Catholic religion curriculum where abortion is mentioned:
Grade 6: Students must be able to "Articulate the Church's teaching concerning the Fourth & Fifth Commandments – "Honour your father and mother; You shall not kill" and apply these to the moral issues facing society today (e.g. sanctity of human life – abortion and euthanasia, dignity of the human person..."
Grade 7: Students must be able to "Summarize the moral teachings of the Church with regard to particular life issues (e.g. marriage, sexuality, cloning, abortion, genocide, euthanasia) and the social order (e.g. use of technology, economic injustices, environment)."
"I'm hoping her teacher will think that a healthy debate is a good idea on this topic. I am Catholic. I was baptized Catholic. I am a modern Catholic, and we live our lives with grace and love in our hearts. That's what being Catholic is to me."
Dixon will be at the school Friday morning to protest the assignment and contest, and how it was delivered to children.
The assignment doesn't allow for dissenting views and that's problematic, said Joyce Arthur of Abortion Rights Coalition Canada.
"Kudos to this young girl. It took courage to speak up," she said. "It's really a violation of students' conscience and own beliefs, because they should be able to choose what they believe on this issue by themselves and not be influenced by Catholic doctrine, because it's basically a political issue."